In this interview with ABIODUN ADEWALE, Nigerian rapper Tobechukwu Ejiofor, popularly known as ILLBLISS, talks about how he developed love for Arsenal and Enugu Rangers as a child
Where did the love for Arsenal begin?
Growing up, my father was an English league follower, so he exposed us to all the teams: Leeds United, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. My likeness for Arsenal started from when my dad visited Highbury Stadium to watch an Arsenal match. He went to different stadiums, took pictures and came back with some Arsenal cups, some mufflers, bedsheets and other items from their store. So, growing up, we had all that stuff sitting on top of the shelf with books of Arsenal, and that’s where I started. I started supporting the team as an adult in the Nwankwo Kanu era, because I felt they had a great policy for players of African descent. From Emmanuel Eboue to Kolo Toure, to Kanu and Emmanuel Adebayor and up to this moment, it’s a club that is racially balanced with the black French and English component. I just felt it was a community.
What was your experience like living in England and getting closer to the club?
I worked at Highbury as a tunnel guard in 2005/06. It was my weekend job while I was living in England. I was doing a lot of community service, cleaning the stadium, arranging the store and the dressing room. It’s a community, I see people come out with their parents and children to try and clean the dressing room and all of that. This was at Highbury and Emirates was bigger and had more staff members.
What are your highs and lows with the club?
I saw a lot of the greats from Arsene Wenger to Thierry Henry, Gilberto, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljunberg. Matchdays were incredible, all the Niaja boys will file out, go to the pub, buy beer and just be shouting and arguing. I really liked that communal energy. Everything the team stands for is something I’ve always loved, even in our slump moments, before we rebuilt ourselves to where we are currently. Arsenal went through some terrible years. There were years I never wore my Arsenal jersey out of anger. I have about five of them that my wife would order, home jerseys of about £50 and away jerseys of about £65 with my name ‘Oga Boss’ at the back but I won’t wear them. They are all in my wardrobe but now I wear them because we feel good about the team again, we have succeeded in rebuilding the team. It’s not perfect but we have done well.
You have been at different Arsenal events in Nigeria. How does it feel to connect with players like Bukayo Saka and some other guys with AFC TV?
When I got to the Bukayo Saka hang out, it was incredible. The humility; there was something humane and down to earth about Saka. He earns a lot of money as a world-class star but he paid attention to all the fans and answered questions politely. You could clearly see he is a well raised Naija boy and he believes in God. Saka has brought like a fresh breath of air for us, he is athletic, he is young and becoming a leader. Now he plays for the English national team. You could see his future clearly and the love for the team is written there as well. It also feels good to see someone like him come up from the Hale End (the academy) and succeed in the senior team under Mikel Arteta. It felt really good and the event brought me really closer to that team again. I mean, being in the room with all other fans who were invited, some of them celebrities, some of them businessmen, some of them totally unknown people but were bound together by the badge. It was beautiful. Before then, Kelechi had also brought the Arenal TV guys to Nigeria as well. In England, he had also pushed Nigerian music to the fan base with lots of things he does at the stadium. He has been a very good friend from way back.
Have you witnessed any other football atmosphere in England apart from Arsenal’s?
In England, football is generational. Imagine your grandfather passing the support of a team to your dad and to you and to your son, so it’s a way of life. You know the beautiful thing, whenever you go to Anfield, you will never leave Liverpool. I’ve been to Anfield once and the energy in there, TV does not even capture five per cent of it. And the feeling is the same when you go to clubs like Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, even Leicester City that are relegated.
Were you also exposed to Nigerian football and our league as well?
I grew up in Enugu and I support Rangers; the Flying Antelopes and my father was a close friend of the legendary goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala. We used to live on the same street as Okala, Christian Chukwu and others. It was like a street of footballers, even though my father was a pharmacist. I grew up watching these men winning the Nations Cup for Nigeria and club titles for Rangers. My parents used to drive from Enugu to Gboko to watch the BCC Lions and Rangers. We used to go and watch Ranchers Bees in Kaduna with Rangers mufflers on our necks as we travelled. We used to travel to watch Stationery Stores and other clubs. There was a communal spirit and we met different family friends at those games who would end up inviting us to their cities. The 80s was a wonderful time.
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Why do you think the atmosphere at home suffered decline while the foreign leagues have expanded their markets?
Football declined in Nigeria. I think the culture died because of lack of sponsorship, the stadiums degenerated, the clubs were not well funded. A couple of years ago, we started a project called 12th Man For Rangers. I remember going to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium to perform free shows at half time and give back to the same team we supported as kids. I have stickers and posters of players like Okala, Chukwu, all on my wall next to all my rap icons. The culture just died, cable TV just came and sold the foreign leagues to us. Even as a child, I used to watch Serie A, Bundesliga, Spanish league, Scottish league and the English league. It just blew up with lots of money and got all the attention.
Having passed through the culture of football in Enugu and London, are you bringing your children into the fold as well?
Honestly, my children are more engrossed in the Arsenal culture than Enugu Rangers because I have not had time to take them to the stadium in Enugu to see matches and that will happen some of these days when the team returns to the Cathedral. My children have developed interest in Arsenal over time and they can now tell me that’s Declan Rice and also ask why he bears that name Rice and so many other baby questions. Imagine them also asking me if Wenger was Mikel Arteta’s father. They also recreate my emotions during the game and tell me we are going to win when the game is even going back. We wear our jerseys on matchdays and we watch together. My wife is a top Gunner as well; we call her the godmother of the Arsenal team because she could just look at the game and say we will win by a particular scoreline. For instance, the Manchester United game, she said we were going to win 3-1 and we did. Ultimately, I want my children to also have good memories about watching Arsenal and Enugu Rangers live with beautiful pictures.
Growing up on the same street as Okala and Chukwu, coupled with the exposure you had with Arsenal and Rangers, did you ever think of becoming a footballer?
Becoming a footballer wasn’t my thing because music was calling me loudly. I was a good goalkeeper in primary and secondary school. I had gloves that were even given to me by Okala. I had boots, shin guards and number one goalkeeper jerseys. In fact, most of my Arsenal jerseys now are No.1, I mean the goalkeeper’s because in my mind I was a goalkeeper. But the goalposts were smaller in primary school, so I felt high when I dived but when I got to secondary school, you’d dive and feel like you will dislocate your joints because of the size of the goalposts. At that point, rap was calling me and from there, music just took over from when I was in junior secondary school.
How do you pass time with some of your colleagues and associates when it’s not about music?
A lot of my friends in the music industry from MI, Vector, Darey, the late Sound Sultan, Odumodu Black and so many of us; we could sit down for hours and discuss the Arsenal headache. It made us even closer because it gives us something else to talk about other than music.
What are your expectations this season?
This season will be tough because teams are already rejuvenated. Look at Newcastle and Brighton for example. Man City are very formidable as well, Erling Haaland is doing it again, showing that last season was not a fluke. But we are going to be good. We will have a few shockers this year but I know we will be in the top three.
What’s your assessment of the Arsenal squad this season as you return to the Champions League?
We need to steady some positions, for example, with a player like Kai Havertz. I don’t know anytime we buy a player from Chelsea, it takes time for the person to lock in, so I pray he ticks. Saka is fantastic, Rice is doing his job and we are not missing Granit Xhaka so much because of players like him. He is fast, he is attack-minded and defends well too. We are sad about Jurien Timber’s injury but he will be back. Hopefully Thomas Partey can also give us more experience in the midfield. I also think we need a backup for Gabriel Jesus due to injury
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